The Abbeyglen Castle Hotel in Clifden is a landmark in Irish hospitality. Located right in the heart of Connemara, delicately poised on its western coast, the family-owned and -run four-star hotel is a truly unique place to spend a holiday.
Bought by the Hughes family in 1969, the castle has been restored and transformed by two generations to make it a place full of character, hand-picked furniture and old world interior design. It stands out for its singularity and desire not to conform to the banality of many modern hotels.
In the hallway are photographs of famous guests who have visited throughout the years. Gabriel Byrne, Woody Allen and Mia Farrow are just a few who have made the journey to Clifden to find a castle jutting out on a hill over the town and looking out onto the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
And it's little wonder they decided to call the Abbeyglen home for a while: the rooms are jaw-droppingly beautiful, especially the larger ones, complete with four-poster beds, gas fires, wooden floors and white bathrooms bigger than most hotel rooms.
The facilities are also top notch: a spa, tennis court, path down to the beach, maps of the local area and attractions, fishing activities, and several relaxing chairs where one can lounge away a few hours in contemplation, are all taken care of.
Paul and Brian Hughes run the hotel with an obvious dedication to maintaining the castle's homely atmosphere. They are a constant presence around the hotel, looking to cater for guests' needs - whatever they may be.
The evenings are when the hotel's atmosphere comes into its own. The dining room is packed to the rafters for the traditional fare, following a champagne reception served in the bar.
Having quaffed some bubbly, my party ordered deep-fried camembert, calamari, roast beef and lobster thermidor, and found the simplicity of the meal matched only by how perfectly all the dishes were cooked.
Add in a buffet dessert, cheese plate, and some fine Rioja, and the evenings in Abbeyglen tend to get off to an indulgent start.
The next section of the evening saw each group of guests in the dining room slink off downstairs to the gentle sound of a piano.
On making our way down we found Brian had dispensed with his maître d' duties and was entertaining guests with vocals and piano skills. This is the norm every Friday and Saturday evening, I was informed by a girl having her hen party in the hotel. Guests get up to sing party pieces and Brian belts out tunes from Queen to classic Irish ballads.
The entertainment goes on into the early hours, with locals dropping in to join guests for a scoop, while at some point in the evening party hats are donned as the entire bar jives their hips to an ABBA greatest hits compilation.
Having enjoyed the nightlife, and managed to creep out from the under the covers of your four-poster bed's sheets, the hotel serves a fine Irish breakfast to prepare you for some exploration of the local area.
Clifden is located very centrally in Connemara, meaning that the whole region is within a short drive.
Twenty-five minutes south is Roundstone, an idyllic town located on the coast. Here one can stop into O'Dowd's Seafood Bar and Restaurant to taste their famous chowder, and sample from the rest of their seafood and meat selection. Also family-owned and -run, O'Dowd's is an institution and is a must-visit if in the town.
For a post-lunch drink you can drop into King's pub next door; there Joe will serve up a tasty pint in a most old school Irish bar.
Before leaving Roundstone it's also worth heading down to the far side of the town to visit the music and craft store, where you can buy or view homemade bodhráns and pottery.
Back in the car, we drove north past Clifden on the Sky Road, which leads you past the Abbeyglen again, to take in the views out to the Atlantic and the islands that hug the shore. It's one of the best vantage points along the coast and gives a remarkable view over both land and sea.
Further north, there are several beautiful spots on a loop that leads up to Cleggan's lobster fisheries, before hitting Letterfrack. From there, the road leads on past the isolated, lonely and minimalist beauty of St Thomas' Church (1851) in Ballinakill, a spot well worth taking in on the way to its more well-known neighbour, Kylemore Abbey.
St Thomas' is small and unheralded but for a small stone sign, and is usually deserted. However, Kylemore is large, imposing and has a car park, coffee shop and craft store. Both are stunning in their own ways and worth taking in.
Another spot on the route is the Connemara National Park, the highlight of which is a hiking path that leads up Diamond Hill, where with a bit of luck you might spot some red deer, before reaching the vantage point to look down at the countryside below.
The loop then winds its way down through the Inagh Valley, with the wilds of Connemara stretching out in vast swathes on either side of the road to create a stunning vista, before you hit Galway city and the main road back along to Clifden and the Abbeyglen. There you can enjoy more rest and recuperation, having absorbed some of the beauty of this iconic Irish region.
For more on Abbeyglen Castle Hotel, visit: www.abbeyglen.ie.
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